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For the Bicentenary: Charles Dickens First Editions

February 7, 2012.

First edition of Charles Dickens’s first book, Sketches by Boz (1836).

Happy 200th Birthday to Charles Dickens! Today we’ll look at Dickens’s publishing history and the formats in which his novels originally appeared.

Pictured above, a first edition of Dickens’s very first book, Sketches by Boz. In 1828 the young Dickens had set out to become a freelance journalist, and in 1833 his first literary work, a humorous sketch titled ‘A Dinner at Poplar Walk’ (later retitled ‘Mr. Minns and His Cousin’), appeared in the Monthly Magazine. Additional stories followed, and soon Dickens was writing a regular series for the Evening Chronicle called “Sketches of London”. These were published as Sketches by Boz in 1836. Illustrated by the famous satirist Cruikshank, the sketches “were praised for their humour, wit, touches of pathos, and the ‘startling fidelity’ of their descriptions of London life” (ODNB). The book was  so popular that a second printing was required almost immediately.

Dickens’s second book, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, was proposed by the newly formed publishing firm Chapman & Hall. They had planned a series of amusing sketches by an artist named Robert Seymour and asked Dickens to write stories to accompany them. When the original artist committed suicide only a few months into the project a young man named Hablot K. Brown was selected as his replacement. ‘Phiz’, as he became known, would remain Dickens’s preferred illustrator for the next two decades, working on ten of his novels including David Copperfield, Little Dorrit, A Tale of Two Cities, and Bleak House. Pickwick itself was a sensation, achieving a circulation of 40,000, and making its author a literary celebrity.

It also established serialisation as an important publishing format, financially lucrative because it facilitated the build-up of narrative tension and kept the public engaged with the story, while allowing for  significant numbers of advertisements in each relatively inexpensive instalment (not unlike television shows). Most of Dickens’s future novels, and those of many other major nineteenth-century writers, would be serialised.

First edition in the original cloth of Oliver Twist (1838).

Following the success of Pickwick, Dickens began his very first novel, Oliver Twist; or The Parish Boy’s Progress. The story was originally published in twenty-four parts in the magazine Bentley’s Miscellany. The copy pictured above is a first edition, first issue in book form, published by Richard Bentley in 1838 shortly before the completion of the serialised version. The rush to prepare illustrations for the book version resulted in the inclusion in early copies of “The Fireside Plate”, an illustration of Oliver at Rose Maylie’s knee (volume III, page 313) that Dickens objected to and asked to be replaced. The most collectible copies are those that, like the above, include the Fireside Plate.

First edition of Charles Dickens’s Master Humphrey’s Clock in the original weekly installments.

Following Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby (serialised in 1838 and39), Chapman & Hall experimented with another type of serialisation. Master Humphrey’s Clock was a weekly published between 1840 and 1841 that contained stand-alone short stories as well as instalments of two different novels, The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge. Each issue was composed of a single folded sheet consisting of sixteen pages, of which twelve were numbered pages of letterpress and the others formed the outer wrapper. Every four or five weeks the unsold copies from the past month were gathered and bound together to create the monthly issue bound in green wrappers. When both these periodical issues were complete, the whole was bound in three volumes in purple-brown cloth. The weekly format seen above is the scarcest in commerce.

From then on, Dickens’s long novels (ten more published between 1844 and 1870) first appeared either on their own as monthly instalments, usually in blue-green wrappers and with two illustrations per instalment, or as weekly instalments in one of his own magazines, Household Words and All the Year Round. Pictured below is a copy of David Copperfield in the original monthly parts.

Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield in the original monthly parts (1849–50).

Once the series was complete, readers often had the parts bound together as a book (the final instalment was always issued with a frontispiece, two dated title pages, and sometimes prefatory matter, to be bound at the front of these volumes, so that they were more like official books than collections of pamphlets). This is why many of our descriptions of Dickens’s novels say “first edition, bound from parts”. A good way to tell if a copy is bound from the original parts is by checking for stab holes, tiny holes in the gutter (the margin adjacent to the spine) left by the needle when the parts were originally bound in wrappers. Novels still in the original parts, like the David Copperfield set above, are much less common than copies of the same books bound from parts. They’re also important historical artefacts, as the ads can tell us a great deal about Victorian life and the audience for Dickens’s novels. But bound copies are also highly collectible. Below, two examples in contemporary calf bindings:

First edition of Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit, bound from the original parts (1857).

First edition of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, bound from the original parts (1853).

Not all of Dickens’s work first appeared serially. A Christmas Carol, perhaps his most famous creation, was published as a stand-alone novella by Chapman & Hall in 1843. It was written “at a white heat” (ODNB) out of anger at the treatment of the poor, particularly children, and was an instant sensation. First editions in the original cloth, featuring a coloured frontispiece and title page, are uncommon, but an attractive and more easily obtainable facsimile edition was published in 1956. The success of A Christmas Carol led to the publication of four additional “Christmas books”, approximately one a year through 1848.

First edition in the original cloth of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843).

Colour frontispiece and title page from the first edition of A Christmas Carol.

In addition to his fiction, Dickens was known for his voluminous correspondence. Most of this now resides in libraries and archives, but pieces occasionally appear on the market, and we’re lucky enough to have a letter in his hand:

Letter in Charles Dickens’s handwriting.

In it, he writes to express his regret that he was unable to attend the funeral of a relative with the surname Culliford (his mother’s maiden name, which he gave to his eldest son Charley as a middle name).

Half-Hours by the Best Authors, presentation copy inscribed to Charles Dickens, with Dickens’s bookplate.

Also of significance for collectors  are books from Dickens’s personal library. Above is a set entitled Half-Hours by the Best Authors, a collection of short pieces (each would take half an hour to read) plucked from various books, including a duel scene from Nicholas Nickleby. The editor, Charles Knight, has inscribed the book to Dickens, whose bookplate appears in each volume. Knight (1791–1873) was a journalist and publisher particularly interested in educating the working-class. He contributed to the first two volumes of Dickens’s Household Words and joined Dickens’s Amateur Company of the Guild, a theatrical group which toured the provinces in 1850–51. In remembrance of that tour, Knight was included among the dedicatees of Bleak House. Below, Dickens’s bookplate as it appears in this set:

Bookplate of Charles Dickens.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this look at Dickens from a rare book perspective. You can view our entire selection of Dickens books here. If you don’t see what you’re looking for, or if you have a first edition or signed book you’d like to sell, please contact us. Below, a selection of other links for the Dickens bicentenary:

Laura joined Peter Harrington in 2009 after completing a master's degree in book history at the University of London. Her special interests are science and medicine, modern literature, and the book culture of the medieval and early modern eras.

  • aida

    hi I recently purchased a book called ten girls by dickens its pretty old and in really good shape do you know if its a first edition 1904 copyright is it worth anything please email me at aidadejesus88@yahoo.com with any info you might have thank you

  • Liz Gould

    Hello Laura, I’m so delighted to find you – someone I could contact about my set of Dickens Bleak House in original monthly parts, which I inherited 8 yrs ago. As fate would have it, the only missing piece is the first page of the first edition!#? So I’m wondering if Peter Harrington might have or know of an incomplete set, and whether you think it might be worthwhile adding that part to mine and creating a complete set?

    Your thoughts and opinions would be most appreciated.

    Thanks very much.

    Liz Gould, Hanover, NH, U.S.A.